Robbie backed out of the driveway and cranked up the volume on the radio to override the noise of the engine. Ten minutes later, he pulled into a strip mall and parked in front of the Army Recruiting Center. Sweat formed on his upper lip and his knuckles bulged white from his vice-grip on the steering wheel. He realized he was holding his breath and let it out. After a single, agonizing minute, Robbie grabbed the keys and his backpack and strode inside.
A young, pimply-faced young man, no more than twenty-two with a well-pressed uniform and excellent posture sat behind the reception desk. He stood when Robbie walked through the door.
“Can I help you?”
“Captain Russell, please.”
The young man disappeared and after several moments returned. His stone face beckoned Robbie to enter.
“The Captain will see you now.” The boy stood aside allowing room for Robbie to pass, and closed the door behind them.
Captain Russell occupied a spacious office that overlooked the shopping center’s parking lot. He knew better men who’d risen to lesser ranks and, although the Army didn’t pay well, he’d enjoyed a modicum of success first in Grenada and then in Desert Storm. More importantly, his men respected him. But his last combat mission was fifteen years ago and he’d be the first to admit his reflexes had slowed since then. Now he was killing time until retirement.
“C’mon in, son. Sit down.” He pointed to a chair. “I understand you’re having second thoughts.”
Robbie nodded and shifted uneasily in his chair.
“Well, how bad do you want to get out?” asked the Captain.
“Pretty bad. I told you over the phone what happened to my parents…”
“It’s a damn shame, that.” Captain Russell sighed. “Unfortunately, I can’t help you. The army’s desperate for bodies. You signed. I’ve got you scheduled for a six-week basic training starting end of the month. Think of it as a sixteen-week crash course. We’ll teach you how to shoot. How to survive with just a pocket knife and an aspirin. That kind of stuff.”
Robbie stared, wide-eyed, managing little more than, “But, I…”
“Look, I’m real sorry about your folks. You can appeal. Might be out by Christmas next. But unless you know somebody.” Captain Russell leaned forward, folded his hands. “You know anybody?”
Robbie shook his head, a helpless look overtaking those few facial muscles that hadn’t gone numb.
The Captain smiled. “Hey, those siblings of yours can use the money. You do get paid, you know.”
“You’re a car guy, right? Stuff’s always breaking down there in the desert. Something about the sand causes everything to go to crap ten minutes after you get there. You’ll be in demand. Probably pull the beauty duties because of it.” He laughed, an infectious, light-hearted laugh. Robbie smiled in response.
Captain Russell paused, stood up, and looked out the window across the parking lot like a man surveying all he owns.
“It’ll be over before you know it. I promise.” Captain Russell handed Robbie his business card. “Call me if you have any other questions.”
Gil sat on Robbie’s bed asking a million questions as Robbie packed his life’s essentials into two large duffle bags. After throwing in several pairs of jeans and a bunch of underwear and socks he routed through the closet, talking to himself. “How many shirts….”
“But why do you have to go?” Gil asked. While Robbie’s back was turned, Gil pulled out the seven pairs of socks Robbie had just stuffed in the duffle bag and hid them under the bed.
“Because I’m doing my duty for my country,” Robbie replied. “And besides. I can’t get out of it. I tried.”
“What’s duty, anyway? Duty to who?” Gil removed Robbie’s underwear and placed it underneath his pillow.
“I have a duty to my country just like you had to feed ZiZi every day. We all have obligations.”
“But why do you have to go so far away? Don’t they have people who live there to do their own duty?” Gil removed several pairs of jeans from the duffle bag and shoved them under the night stand. Robbie turned and tossed his shirts onto a pile on the bed. Gil leaned back nonchalantly, distancing himself from the duffle bags. Robbie began taking his shirts off their hangers and folding them neatly.
“Yeah, but sometimes people need more help.”
“But we need more help. Especially because of Mom and Dad.” Robbie stopped folding shirts and knelt down next to Gil.
“Hey. C’mon.” He held his arms out and Gil jumped into them. He cradled Gil as best as you can a 5’2″ baby.
“I’ll be back before you know it. You’ll see.” Gil crinkled his nose and buried his face in Robbie’s shoulder.
“Are these people more important than we are?”
“Nothing’s more important than you are.” Robbie rubbed Gil’s back. “It’s just that some people don’t have the same freedoms we have and so that’s why I have to go. It’s about democracy.” Robbie shifted Gil back to his spot on the floor.
“Isn’t democracy when you get to choose for yourself?” Gil asked. Robbie nodded.
“Then maybe they’ve already chosen.”
“Well said, little brother.” Kori tossed several books on the bed and flopped down after them. “Some of my favorites. For the plane ride and apres.” She smiled at Robbie. “Sorry. I was eavesdropping.”
“Since when did you become a philosopher?” Robbie asked.
The lock sprung open in Gil’s hand and his smile spread-eagled across his face. He closed it and tried again. It pinged open and he began anew.
“Since my brother became a right-wing bonehead. What’s next? White cloaks? Skinheads? Listening to Rush Limbaugh?” Kori laid down on the bed next to the books.
“Kori, weren’t you an apolitical arteest like two minutes ago?” He pronounced the word with a mock French affectation. “What the hell happened?”
“Mom died. And someone had to take over for her. Besides, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Mom and Dad died for oil the same way you will if you go.” She bit the nubby nail of her right index finger.
“Yeah, well, Mom knew what she was talking about. You haven’t got a clue.” Robbie walked to the hall closet, pulled his shoe shine kit out and tossed it onto the bed.
The roar of a motorcycle could be heard coming down the street. The driver stopped in the Tirabi driveway and cut the engine.
“Jack!” Gil jumped off the bed and ran downstairs.
“Great,” Robbie said. “Who invited him?” Robbie glared at Kori and strode to the window. “If that mother is riding without a helmet, I’ll kill him myself. Then he won’t have to worry about wrecking.” Robbie peered down to confirm that Jack was not wearing a helmet. He watched as Gil ran out the door and jumped into Jack’s arms. “Stupid Jackass! He turned to Kori grimacing. “And I mean that in the nicest way.”
“Why are you getting so bent out of shape? They passed the no-helmet law, ya’ know.”
“Yeah, but if anyone truly thinks it’s safe to be riding anywhere without a helmet, they don’t have two brain cells to rub together. You know why they did it, don’t you? Because you’re more likely to die in an accident if you’re not wearing a helmet. The other way, you just run up exorbitant medical costs.”
“You’re so critical.”
“Did you ever see a guy driving down the highway at sixty miles an hour with no helmet? His skin’s plastered to his face, rippling in the wind. Even with glasses, your eyes are squinting and tearing from the pressure. Let that guy get hit with a bug, like a bee or a cicada or something, and at that speed, I’ll bet you he gets a welt the size of a half dollar. And that’s if he doesn’t wreck first.”
“Enough. I’m going out.” She tossed the book she was fingering back onto the bed.
“Will you watch Gil, please?” Robbie nodded and turned back to the closet.
“Take the helmets off my bike,” Robbie warned.
Kori slammed the bedroom door in reply.
“Like talking to a wall,” Robbie muttered. He peeked out the window, careful not to let Jack see him. Once Robbie’s best friend, the partnership had waned when Jack started courting Robbie’s sister in earnest. It was just too tough for Robbie to be best friends with the guy who was sleeping with his sister.
Kori walked over to Jack and handed him a helmet. He shook her off, but she cocked her head, a coquette, and he obliged. He looked up to Robbie’s window and saluted. Robbie flashed him the finger and resumed packing. The roar of the motorcycle filled the room then faded into the distance.
to be continued. . .
to read what came before, click here. . .